March 28, 2014 5:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the average GPA of all students in 2005 was 3.25. The correct statistic is 3.23.
President Barry Mills delivered a report on athletics at a faculty meeting on February 4, providing a rare look at the College’s efforts to recruit athletes and opening a discussion about their collective performance in the classroom.
According to Professor of Latin and Greek Barbara Boyd, at one of the fall faculty meetings earlier in the year, Professor of Religion Jorunn Buckley voiced her concern with “a number of students that she said were underprepared for the academic work at Bowdoin, and noticed that some of them were athletes.”
Several members of the faculty began actively discussing the issue during the meeting, and Mills returned at the February 4 meeting with information to answer some of their concerns, citing the difference in cumulative grade point average between athletes and non-athletes at Bowdoin as the “smallest or next to smallest of any school in the NESCAC.”
The collective GPA of female athletes is slightly higher than that of the general female population, while male athletes are just a shade below the male average. According to a Bowdoin Academic Affairs web page, at the end of the fall 2005 semester the cumulative GPA of student athletes, including members of club teams, was 3.22, almost indentical to the all-student cumulative GPA of 3.23. The College has not updated these statistics since 2005.
“It’s absolutely a point of pride within our campus community and the athletic department,” said Tim Ryan, althetic director, about the negligible GPA difference between athletes and the student body at large. “It’s a testament to the work our coaches do to bring highly talented students to campus who are dedicated to their academic interests.
Multiple professors on campus pointed out that they were not concerned with athletes in general, but rather a select few who seemed to be underperforming academically.
“Basically [Mills’] message was that, on average, the GPA of athletes is on par with the rest of the College. Averages can be misleading,” said biology and biochemistry professor Bruce Kohorn. “It would be better to look at the individual GPAs of individual athletes and perhaps those of specific teams.”
Each admissions cycle, Bowdoin is limited, like all other NESCAC schools, to 77 athletic recruits—students who gain admission aided by the fact they play sports. Bowdoin has a self-imposed, flexible cap of admitting around 120 student athletes in each first-year class. This means a total of 43 athletes are admitted solely on the basis of their academic achievements. No other NESCAC school has a similar limitation.
President Mills instituted the cap of 120 when he came to Bowdoin in 2001.
“I believed that we could have competitive and excellent teams, and at the same time, given our small size, it would leave enough space to admit people with other interests,” he said.
Ryan echoed Mills’ interest in bringing a diverse student body to Bowdoin each year.
“One of our goals at Bowdoin is to have a community that’s comprised of people with many different interests,” said Ryan. “We work with the parameters that are in place for us regarding athletes and we’re pleased with the success that we’ve been able to have both in the classroom and on the playing field.”
After Mills’ February faculty meeting remarks, faculty members launched into a larger discussion about the relationship between college athletics and academics.
“One of the issues that came up was students missing classes on Fridays due to away games,” said Boyd. The administration “talked about how that had all been worked out and there wasn’t supposed to be any missing of classes. But then some faculty members said ‘Actually, no,’” there had been incidents of it.
While unanimously agreeing that there is value in participating in athletics, some professors said they felt that athletes at Bowdoin are pressured to dedicate an inordinate amount of time to their sports.
“There are some very bright people who don’t have the time or energy to reach their potential in the classroom,” said Kohorn.
“If teammates are saying ‘Oh, don’t take that class because of practice,’ then that’s really detrimental to the academic program of the institution,” said Boyd.
Student-athletes, too, acknowledged the strain that practices, games and other team functions can put on their studies.
“Every single time between classes in-season, even if it’s just 45 minutes, I have to be doing something,” said Kelsey Mullaney ’16, a member of the field hockey team, in an interview with the Orient. “If I don’t, then I’m going to be up late. Procrastination isn’t an option.”
“Two hours a day at practice translates to a 2-hour practice, a half-hour dinner with the team, minimum, and a half-hour of cleaning up and getting ready to do work,” said Ezra Duplissie-Cyr ’15, a member of the men’s club rugby team. “Before you know it, it’s eight o’clock and half of your day is gone.”
Duplissie-Cyr opted not to play a varsity sport at Bowdoin because of the additional time commitment.
“I’ve heard [varsity athletes] complain about getting back from a game at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday night,” he said.
Despite this, many athletes reported athletics having a positive effect on their academics.
“It creates a schedule for me,” said Spencer Vespole ’13, who plays water polo in the fall and coaches the women’s water polo team in the spring. “Outside of the season I don’t really know what to do between 4:30 and 6:30. I’ll fall asleep.”
“As a junior, I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’m pretty much always in season,” said Griffin Cardew ’14, a member of both the football and lacrosse teams. “I feel like I work best when I’m in season because I tend to procrastinate [otherwise]. It forces me to be organized and have a schedule. When I have an hour or 45 minutes to get work done, that’s when I have to do it.”
According to Mullaney, being a member of a sports team has improved her academic experience as a first year in multiple ways. Because field hockey is a fall sport, she said she developed her study habits during her busiest time of the year.
“It would be much harder starting with lots of free time and then going into a sport,” she said.
However, several athletes confirmed the concern that Boyd had—that student athletes often choose classes around their sports commitments, as a way to more prudently manage their future schedules.
“There were classes in the afternoon that I couldn’t take [because of practice], which sucks because they aren’t offered in the spring,” added Mullaney. “That’s really frustrating.”
“There have been a couple of night classes in the past that I would’ve been interested in taking, but I didn’t just because I would’ve missed practice,” said Cardew. “So to a certain extent it’s affected it, but I wouldn’t make any complaints about it.”
According to Professor of Economics Jonathan Goldstein, athletes at Bowdoin have little incentive to dedicate time to schoolwork at the expense of their athletic careers.
“At Bowdoin, 85 percent of grades are As and Bs,” he said. “What that says is that the opportunity cost of shirking academic responsibilities to pursue extracurricular activities is very small.”
However, not all professors on campus said they agree that student-athletes should always have to be students first.
“The people who disparage spending a lot of time on athletics are thinking from a perspective that it’s a wasted endeavor,” said Assistant Professor of Economics Erik Nelson. “Presumably, you would think you’re a better person for devoting more time to your mind than your body, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. People who are worried about athletes and the amount of time they spend with the sport think that there’s some kind of wrongful imbalance. I don’t know why, necessarily.”
“Students are adults by the time they’re in college,” added Nelson. “It’s up to them to decide how they want to allocate their time and the risk they run by dedicating a lot of time to a particular activity.”
Even though the College’s student athletes have limited time to spare for schoolwork, academics are a major concern for the Athletic Department.
“When we go through the hiring process of coaches, we talk about the importance of the academic performance of our students,” said Ryan. “We hope to attract people who are philosophically aligned with the idea that students are here to be students first.”
Whether they like it or not, coaches at Bowdoin must look to recruit players who will meet the approval of the Office of Admissions.
“Regardless of how good a player someone is, the school’s not going to accept them if they don’t think they’re qualified,” said Tim Gilbride, the head coach of men’s basketball.
As for non-recruits, the definition of “qualified” at Bowdoin is fluid when compared to other peer institutions.
“There’s nothing formulaic [for us],” said Head Football Coach Dave Caputi. “Ivy League schools have something called the Academic Index. The highest score you can get is 240 points. Good essay, bad essay, glowing teacher recommendations, lukewarm teacher recommendations: none of that factors into it in the Ivy League formula. Bowdoin’s is not a quantitative evaluation; it’s a qualitative evaluation.”
“Standards have changed over time as the school looks for different things, students from different areas, or whatever the case may be,” said Gilbride. “Every year someone from admissions will talk to Tim Ryan and say ‘Here are the parameters.’ Sometimes they’ll actually sit down with us coaches as a group and say, ‘Here are cases of kids who’ve been admitted or not admitted, and here’s why.’”
Once given a clear picture of what to look for in recruits’ academic profiles, coaches work hard to project which of their target players stand a good chance of admittance.
As a result of the non-formulaic approach in admissions, Bowdoin coaches must pay particular attention to their athletes’ non-athletic performance. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Scott Mieklejohn, declined to comment for this story.
“We save all the information of kids we’ve admitted in the past and say to ourselves ‘How did Admissions read this kid?’ So we’ll do some pretty lengthy analysis for future reference,” said Caputi.
“Some guys are borderline, academically,” said Gilbride. “Your initial information might be testing scores and GPA in a recruiting sheet. Then we’ll ask for more information: What’s he taking for courses? Is he taking AP classes? What courses are on the schedule next year? If that stuff’s very strong, then we can think that it might work out.”
Like all Bowdoin students, athletes have the opportunity to utilize many academic resources. Coaches make sure to let their players know what is available on campus.
“I talk to my players pretty regularly, especially the first years,” said Gilbride. “Sometimes people aren’t aware of the resources available to them. Occasionally, if they come in and struggle academically they’ll be embarrassed, because they’ve always been so successful as a student [prior to college]. I tell them to meet with the professor or join a study group. It’s advice I’d give to any first-year students.”
Coaches are also concerned about keeping close tabs on their players’ grades.
“All freshmen and anyone who got below a 3.0 in the previous semester go to a study hall once a week for an hour,” Cardew said of the lacrosse team.
Most recruits succeed in the classroom once at Bowdoin, and many excel. Eighty-four Polar Bears were named to the NESCAC All-Academic Team this past fall, and 77 were named for the winter season.
“I think that’s a measure of the job the admissions office does,” said Coach Caputi. “It’s a measure of the standards we have and us trying to find kids who are a good match.”